It was once rumoured that all women dream of a prince charming to sweep them off their feet. Personally, I had always fancied a wild gun-slinging hero fresh from a John Wayne western. So imagine my surprise when a tall-dark-handsome, but unfortunately clingy type, had me dusting off the Nikes. Maybe you would have reacted the same if someone had a life plan involving you, then again maybe you wouldn’t. Perhaps it just depends on your stance when it comes to the commitment-phobia theory or the Michael Buerk issue.
The term ‘commitmentphobia,’ which was previously all one word, came about in 1987 when Steven Carter and Julia Sokol-Coopersmith published their New York Times bestseller, ‘Men Who Can’t Love.’ It was within the pages of this book that the theory of commitment-phobia was given breath, and at the time the theory only applied to men.
Interestingly what followed its publication was a mass outcry against the clearly sexist notion that only men can suffer from this commitment-phobia. Thousands upon thousands of women were identifying with the criteria and claimed that they too could suffer from such an anxiety. Much like myself these women had all their supposed dreams coming true; someone wanting to sweep them away and love them. Yet still they found themselves dithering on the edge of plunging whole-heartedly into a relationship.
The response was a second book which emerged six years later than the original. This time ‘He’s Scared, She’s Scared’ applied the commitment-phobia theory to both males and females. At its most basic level the book claimed that these men, and evidently women, feared becoming trapped or being a disappointment whilst in a relationship. This was usually due to a variety of reasons but the common result was a fear of committed relationships. From the cultural evidence of the 80s clearly today’s idea of the female commitment-phobe is not a new-fangled one; more increasingly coming to fruition.
Once upon a time commitment-phobe characteristics would have been unrecognisable amongst women. Archetypes have seen us as longing for a man and a ring on our finger, though this could be because women didn’t have any other life options historically. It would be alien for a woman to desire anything else let alone the complete opposite of this. In comparison, today women can live independently, control their own money, vote for parliament, have sex outside of marriage, earn more than men, divorce their husband, win custody of their children, be single mothers and have many more opportunities without a man by their side.
Is it because of what the Victorian’s dubbed ‘the new woman’s’ independence that the rumours are now suggesting women are becoming commitment-phobes? Even experts and statistics are both indicating that the age-old stereotypical gender roles are being reversed, particularly the once popular belief that only men, and not women can pursue sexual relationships whilst avoiding commitment. Not only is this belief deteriorating but it is ironically being turned on its head, more specifically his.
This means that more men but fewer women want to get married. Making an abrupt u-turn from their macho-istic and bachelorette instincts men are becoming keener to marry and sooner too. For example ‘Gorgeous Networks,’ an online dating website, conducted a survey on twelve thousand singles about marriage. It was determined that fifty-one percent of men in their twenties now put finding a marriage partner as number one on their list of priorities, whilst only forty-five percent of women in the same age bracket do the same. These results were no doubt unexpected, but judging by my own experience I was not surprised.
About nine months into my first serious relationship with Mr. tall-dark-handsome-but-clingy type I had the shock of my life. Whilst I was driving us both to a family get together and silently listening to the radio, the following questions came out of nowhere. He asked in a jovial tone though from the picking of his fingers I could tell he was testing the future of the relationship; “Do you ever want children? I mean, I was just thinking I’d like kids some day. And if you do, how many do you want? And would you want boys or girls?”
The answer he got was a narrow escape from a road traffic incident. That was followed by a lot more silence before, “I don’t know.” But that was the truth of things. As a student my future plans consisted of when, where and with whom I would next be intoxicated. Until that moment I had never thought about having children even though they make up part of the plans ordinarily associated with women. What most men come to call the dreaded ‘five year plan.’ Yet there we sat in my Volkswagen Polo with the tables very much turned. I assumed that if he was talking about children he must have seen me as a life partner and wanted to marry me. Whilst he was dreaming up plans I was in need of a brown paper bag.
Having grown up the mud-slinging and tree-climbing tomboy whose many friends are male, I thought I knew what boys were all about. For example immature and careless when it came to relationships and the favourite topic of conversation being which celebrities were ‘fit.’ So I was surprised when the man in our relationship started asking the sort of questions that stereotypically freak them out with. It only took him one more year to sheepishly admit that once I graduated he would marry me and then we could have babies. Oh my god he actually had a five year plan! So it was at this point that he got himself dumped.
Despite all my natural instincts telling me to run a mile I did wonder whether I needed one huge slap. This guy was perfect for me in so many ways, despite the family planning. Besides, I was normally the romantic type and I had thought that when someone came along and wanted to marry me I would naturally have turned to mush. Instead I now not only found myself in the other fifty-five percent of women that don’t list marriage as a top priority, but felt like the only woman on the planet afraid of getting married. It was becoming more and more possible to label myself a commitment-phobe. But was I? After all we have seen that there were women in the late eighties experiencing similar problems and although it’s still believed to be uncommon, nowadays this female commitment-phobe trend is on the rise.
Considering how the tables are turning there must be some explanation as to why. Sociologist Dr Roona Simpson from The Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at The University of Edinburgh has one answer. She suggests that women are avoiding marriage purely for socioeconomic reasons. “Money and time are still shared unequally in relationships, and women’s lives change the most when marriage and children come along. They are still the ones doing most of the chores, and taking time off work when children are ill. So you have the combination of big changes in women’s economic opportunities combined with this very slow change in relationships, and it is putting them off marriage.”
For many years brave women have fought against patriarchy for an equal and fairer society, the most memorable of these being the suffragettes and it is thanks to such women that we now live with so many more freedoms. So why then, with all of our advances and progress, have most generations failed to notice the blatant inequality still evident within relationships? What Dr Simpson suggested I could certainly relate to. I have always been the ambitious type and I wondered whether the idea of marriage and babies subconsciously meant putting my own life on hold. As far as I could see my plans had no room for babies, dirty nappies and sleepless nights. I started to feel less scared about my ex-boyfriend’s obsessive planning and instead angry.
I think anyone would feel angry if someone else made such enormous life-changing plans that included them, just assuming that they would go along with them. Or angry when everyone starts telling them how soon enough their biological clock would start ticking and make them broody. Society seems to suggest that everyone should eventually get married and have children. Is it so wrong that more of us, coincidentally more women, seem to rebelling from this way of life? It’s possible that this is today’s revolution. In our modern society women are becoming career driven singletons with one in five taking home more than her partner. We are achieving what we want for ourselves, but what’s more is that we should not feel guilty about this. Even less so when our successes are not always supported by the male population, which Michael Buerk illustrated beautifully in 2005.
Buerk waded rather noisily and memorably into our topic of conversation, making headlines and causing debates. In an interview with Radio Times he let slip his obvious opinion of women which then turned into a full-scale rant. Amongst his most priceless complaints were that “man is becoming an optional extra like metallic paint on your car or grated chocolate on your cappuccino.” And all because “they [being women] are choosing not to have a man in the household.” Which as a result meant that all men had been reduced to mere “sperm donors.” His irrational fears are somewhat extreme. After all, women are not taking over the planet they are just more independent, but he does illustrate how men are starting to feel insecure. This might explain why we are seeing an increasing change in men’s hunter-gatherer and commitment-phobe attitudes.
When I listened to Michael Buerk’s interview all I could envision was my Victorianesque grandfather. The truth is that men might well be becoming an optional extra but even so they still shouldn’t be likened to paint or chocolate. Metallic paint will last longer than any man, whilst chocolate will always smell and taste far better. Not to mention that should our ancestral females have been given the choice, most would have opted not to have a man in the house. And yes thank you we have proven we can raise children all on our own, all we need is a fertility clinic to start the ball rolling. It’s only recently that it has become truly possible for women to be independent and now that that’s taking place men are feeling insecure.
Despite men pining after relationships the statistics for England and Wales show marriage rates are at an all time low. Since the late eighteen hundreds the rate of marriages were slowly increasing, right up to the early nineteen hundreds when there was a sudden increase in numbers. However, in the late nineteen hundreds, more specifically the eighties, there is an even more sudden decline in marriages. There will undoubtedly be many contributing factors to the figures but I cannot help wondering whether women were beginning to step away from the marriage idea. From the latest figures and from what we have discussed this would certainly seem to be the case. For example in 2008 there were 232,990 marriages, the last time we saw such a figure was in 1895. So we have regressed to what could be called Victorian rates of marriage. We are all becoming more independent but I would argue that more significantly so are women.
So I was starting to feel less worried about the idea that I might never want to get married or have children. From the literature I had already found on the issue I had started to wonder whether I had a problem and whether I really was a commitment-phobe. But from the other facts and opinions I had found it sounded as if I wasn’t alone. I had decided that I was just a very modern and independent woman.
I reflect on how today there are millions of women out there like me. I have no doubt they are building themselves an education, a life and a career; all without including a man, marriage or babies in the mix. Yet what is best of all is that we don’t have to feel ashamed or selfish about doing so. Are we actually commitment-phobes? Or are we just independent? For me the line between the two adjectives is reassuringly starting to blur. Surely I can still think most men are idiots whilst loving one of them in particular. I can still plan my future how I want it to be whilst allowing marriage, babies and other stuff just sort of happen, if it ever does.
Just for the record Mr tall-dark-handsome-but-clingy-type has been given a second chance, but under strict instructions not to be such a Buerk. I don’t think that women are necessarily the new commitement-phobes, though no one is denying there are female ‘players’ out there. I’m sorry guys if we happen to tread on your ego with our stiletto shoes, but I just think women are getting even, maybe even a little bit ahead. It doesn’t have to make us afraid of love and relationships at the same time.